A Florida judge has ruled that the Miami-Dade County Expressway Authority can remain in business, after determining that lawmakers violated the state constitution by passing a law abolishing the toll road authority.
Ruling from the bench Friday, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper said there was no doubt in his mind about the intent of House Bill 385, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed July 3 eliminating the authority known as MDX and replacing it with the Greater Miami Expressway Agency.
The law only affects Miami-Dade County, whose home-rule authority has been written into the state constitution. That power prohibits the Legislature from passing laws, like HB 385, that only apply to the county.
“Look, home rule as it relates to Miami-Dade County is unique to Miami-Dade County,” Cooper said. HB 385 “is an unconstitutional special law.”
Cooper’s written ruling will be available later this week.
The Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Department of Transportation are expected to appeal the decision to the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez, who also is the MDX board chairman, lauded Cooper’s ruling and the protection he said it affords the county’s “constitutional right for home rule.”
“When Gov. Ron DeSantis signed this bill into law on July 3, it was a clear violation of the Florida Constitution’s home rule protection of Miami-Dade County’s authority to manage its affairs, including our roadways,” Gimenez said in a statement Friday. “Justice prevailed today, thanks to Judge Cooper’s legal clarity.”
Gimenez urged the governor to abide by the ruling and to ask the House not to appeal the ruling.
He also said he will work with DeSantis and the local legislative delegation on developing solutions that reduce toll rates in south Florida on MDX expressways and “on all the state-run roads that consume 60% of all toll dollars in our county.”
The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce also applauded the judge’s decision to strike down HB 385, saying that it ensures MDX will be operated locally.
Under HB 385, MDX’s successor toll road agency is required to report financial decisions to the state and to seek approval for bond issuance from the Legislative Budget Commission.
Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, who sponsored HB 385, indicated his displeasure after the ruling was handed down Friday, tweeting that Gimenez and Miami-Dade County believe that supporting MDX “is more important than our hard working families. More important than toll relief. More important than transparency.”
Gimenez said he would work with the state to reduce tolls, including those imposed by the Florida Turnpike and FDOT in Miami-Dade County.
“Let’s put aside our differences and start moving forward,” he said. “Our residents are counting on us.”
The MDX was projected to collect about $220 million in toll revenue on its five expressways in fiscal 2019, an amount that included a 6% reduction in tolls imposed by the governing board in an effort to appease unhappy local legislators, and reduced revenue from SunPass transponder collections due to problems with a state contractor hired by FDOT.
MDX has about $1.5 billion of debt outstanding. The bonds have been downgraded multiple times with analysts citing legislative interference into MDX’s operations as an independent authority.
S&P Global Ratings lowered its rating to A from A-plus on July 16. Moody’s Investors Service cut its ratings to A3 from A2 on July 5, and to A2 from A1 on May 10. Fitch Ratings downgraded its rating to A-minus from A on May 8. All have negative outlooks.